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Exploring the Link Between Health and Happiness

Research looks at whether feeling happy actually improves your health.

S_Chatcharin/Adobe Stock
Source: S_Chatcharin/Adobe Stock

It’s common sense that it’s difficult to feel happy when you are seriously ill. But do feelings of happiness help to prevent people from becoming sick, or help them to get better quicker?

That’s the question posed by a new field of research focused on the relationship between happiness and health. And it’s a question that can be difficult to answer with data. But researchers are creating better measures for happiness and using new statistical techniques that help to tease out whether happiness really makes a difference in health.

In these types of studies, happiness doesn’t just mean that burst of joy you get from a feel-good movie or a when your favorite team wins a game. It also includes more general feelings of satisfaction and a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

A new systematic review published this month in the Annual Review of Public Health looks at the entire body of evidence on happiness and health to answer the question, does happiness really lead to better health?

The author is quick to note that when studying happiness, it can be difficult to control for reverse causation. (Is the subject unhappy because they’re ill or ill because they’re unhappy?) And it’s difficult to remove all of the other variables that influence happiness and health. For example, someone who is unemployed may feel unhappy because he lost his job and is more likely to delay medical treatment because he no longer has health insurance, which therefore leads to a more serious illness. But good research studies are set up to account for these variables.

Here’s what studies have found so far:

First, there is clear evidence demonstrating a link between happiness and a decreased risk of mortality. Essentially, people who report that they feel a stronger sense of well-being are less likely to die compared to those who do not. It’s important to note that this analysis does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship, but it still provides broad evidence of a connection.

Next, there is a range of prospective studies that show happiness is associated with a reduced risk of specific diseases including stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, and arthritis. There is also some evidence that people with serious health conditions — including spinal cord injury, coronary artery disease, and heart failure — are likely to recover more quickly when they experience feelings of happiness.

There is no solid evidence yet of a happiness intervention that prevents illness or improves recovery time for specific diseases. But there are data that show positive psychology interventions help to reduce symptoms of depression. And also some evidence that these types of interventions lead to improvements in mental health and life satisfaction for older adults.

To find out what all of this means, we talked to Anthony Ong, a professor of human development at Cornell University whose work focuses on the link between health and aging, emotion, race, social class, and relationships.

“Although there is growing support for an association between happiness and mental and physical health, a full understanding of the phenomenon is far from complete,” Ong said. “Questions remain regarding the underlying mechanisms. More research is also needed to clarify how much, when, and for whom does happiness matter for health. In short, a comprehensive understanding of happiness and health will require that we move beyond simply asking whether happiness is good for health to a serious consideration of measuring happiness in context. Context may include individual and environmental factors, personal histories, and culture. The time for such inquiry is at hand.”

The take-home message: More research is surely required. But there is enough evidence now to demonstrate that health is associated with those greater feelings of happiness and satisfaction with life.

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